Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson
(Gaslight Mystery #1)
Published May 1, 1999
(Yes, I realize I originally published this a week early. I blame the cold medicine I was taking.)
This month’s challenge was for a book recommended by a friend. I’ll confess that I did have this series recommended by a friend, though they were recommending the latest book in the series. I, however, usually prefer to start at the beginning, especially with mysteries where the relationship between two characters plays and integral part. My friend promised that I’d find the first book well worth my time. Given I finished 291 pages in two days, I would say I did.
A historical mystery, the story opens in New York at the turn of the 20th Century. Sarah Brandt, a doctor’s widow who married below the social station she was born into, works as a midwife and is called out in the middle of the night to deliver a baby in a boarding house. The call’s not unexpected, but while there, she sees a girl who looks very much like an old schoolfriend of hers. Her attention is quickly diverted back to the work at hand and she doesn’t give the girl more than a passing thought. It is only the next day when she returns for a follow-up visit that she learns the girl has been murdered — and she is indeed a member of her old schoolfriend’s family.
Investigating the crime with not too much enthusiasm is Frank Malloy. This is a NYPD that has filled with corruption, though the current commissioner, one Theodore Roosevelt, has sworn to root it out. Malloy is an honest man as policemen go, though his eye is more on securing a promotion for himself than getting involved in a case that not only doesn’t promise to contribute to that effort, but which could actively hurt him. Sarah, however, won’t let go of the matter and Malloy slowly finds himself drawn in.
I’ll confess to making a guess early on as to the motives behind the murder and finding myself right, but I was fascinated enough with the characters that this didn’t spoil my enjoyment. There’s quite a bit of historic detail in the book, but it’s laid in deftly enough that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. It wraps itself around the characters, informs their choices and builds the world Sarah and Malloy inhabit quite nicely.
There are currently fourteen books in the Gaslight Mysteries series, with a 15th due in May. This isn’t a series I’m going to swallow whole (like I tend to mainline the J.D. Robb In Death books, usually reading three at a whack before tackling something else), but I definitely have the next in the series, Murder On St. Mark’s Place, queued up in my “to buy” list.
A Kiss for Midwinter by Coutney Milan
(Brothers Sinister #1.5)
Published December 16, 2012
The challenge this month was for a short read. To be honest, I haven’t had this in my TBR pile long (I bought it the day after Christmas), but this novella highlights many things I enjoy about short form writing: it was fast-paced, it was focused on the main characters, and the length felt just about right. It proved a nice relief at a moment when my day job proved totally insane (don’t ask), and I walked away satisfied. Right there, any artistic merits aside, is a sign the story did exactly what it should: made the reader feel like they hadn’t wasted their time reading it.
Before I go any further, let me say that I have not read The Duchess War, the book this novella is connected to, so the story rose and fell entirely on its own merits without any pre-existing opinions about the characters. The plot in brief: We meet Jonas Grantham is a young man of twenty-one shadowing an older doctor prior to beginning his own medical studies. As the book opens, they are visiting a family whose young daughter is pregnant, and the doctor offers up a boatload of judgements and precious little medical advice: the young woman clearly suffers from a moral defect, and her parents should expect she will die an early, tragic death and the girl is already lost to them. Jonas thinks the doctor is wrong, but he stays silent because that’s what he’s been told to do.
Cut to five years later. Jonas is now a doctor and establishing himself in his practice in Leicester. He’s also decided to marry, so compiles a list of what he considers the ten prettiest women in town. After seeing Lydia Charingford, he considers adding an eleventh to the list. Then he learns that this lovely and poised young woman is the same girl he saw five years before.
This is a story of consequences. Lydia lives with the consequences of having been seduced when she was fifteen, something she and her family must forever keep a secret or there will be social ruin. Jonas lives with the consequences of his silence on the night he met Lydia, when he knows he should have said something as the old doctor he was shadowing dispensed moral judgements and a potentially dangerous prescription. These incidents have shaped who they are now and cause much of the conflict between them.
There are two time jumps in this novella; the first is a jump of five years between Lydia and Jonas’ first meeting and the second of sixteen months which covers the time period of The Duchess War — and those two time jumps are, I feel a big key as to why this story works. We see the trouble begin with Jonas and Lydia’s first meeting because his inaction that night shapes who he is as a doctor. When they meet again, Lydia mistakes his intentions and believe that because Jonas knows her history, his attentions have a less honorable bent. It is when she speaks frankly to him that she will not be ruined and if he tries anything, he’ll be sorry, that Jonas finds himself taken with her and his potential list of brides has shrunk to one.
The second time jump now happens and we’re sixteen months later, shortly before Christmas and the main body of the story. Lydia has been engaged and had it fall through rather disastrously, convincing her that she isn’t a particularly good judge of the male character as husband potential. Jonas’ father, who suffers from dementia, is starting to fail and his condition leads to the injury of a young boy Jonas had hired to help look after him. Neither is in a particularly good place emotionally, which is perhaps why things come to a head. Where he only sees tragedy, she helps him see hope and joy, while he helps her to face the fears and doubts that sprang from her seduction and subsequent pregnancy.
And here is where the short form shines. In a longer book, Jonas and Lydia would have been kept apart longer, which would have likely lead to frustration that Lydia needed to “just get over it” since her her fears were what was holding her back. And Jonas’ insistence on simply not going away when she tells him to would start to seem a bit stalkery if things were dragged out. There was a point where my Goodreads update read “The hero just behaved like a Class A jerk. That he might have done so deliberately to provoke a reaction from the heroine provides some saving grace, but I found myself questioning their relationship.” Jonas quickly redeemed himself, though, and with the focus on the two of them, I found the rest of the story a delight. My main quibble with short romances is that things often feel rushed and I’m left wanting. This, however, felt the right length and I think the structure, that we have the time jumps helped.
Novellas are seeing a resurgence these days, a way for authors to promote a series or lure new readers in with a story that wouldn’t work in the longer form, but that the author wants to tell. It’s a great way for readers to discover new authors or try something different if they’re not ready to dive into longer works. This is one I’d definitely recommend to someone who hasn’t reach Courtney Milan’s work before. It’s a quick, satisfying read and I definitely will be reading more from her.